Deftly folding a triangular songket into a tengkolok, shaping it by wrapping the fabric around his knee as he sat on a chair, Raja Ahmad Akashah demonstrated how the headdress is tied, styled and worn.
Earlier, the 32in by 32in cloth had been starched and folded into two to form a symmetrical triangle, sandwiching a piece of collar paper from edge to edge and ironed flat. The opened sides of the triangle were then stitched closed using a sewing machine.
The tengkolok, also widely known as destar or tanjak, is believed to have originated from the era of the Melaka Sultanate, as subjects had to cover their head or hair when seeking an audience with the ruler.
According to Raja Ahmad, who is addressed as Ku Kashah, while the Malay headdress began life as a normal piece of cloth with simple knots, when it was adopted as a tradition over the years, its style grew more elaborate, styled on higher quality fabrics. Rather than being a compulsory item of dressing like it was in the past, the tengkolok has turned into a status symbol. Today, the highest quality tengkolok would be styled using gold threaded hand-woven Terengganu songket.
Styling of the tengkolok is an artistic skill, as shown by Ku Kashah, who himself picked up an interest at a young age from his father, the late Raja Hj. Abd. Malek. “My dad served in Istana Iskandariah for some twenty years, rising in position from Panglima Perang Kiri to Panglima Dalam. He was an expert in styling the tengkolok, so his services were much sought after by members of the Perak royal family for royal ceremonial functions,” said Ku Kashah, who hails from the royal town of Kuala Kangsar.
Since his father’s passing in 1998, Ku Kashah, 43, naturally became the next Tukang Lipat (folder) to engage when it came to styling the headdress, not only by royalty but also by recipients of Datukship and other honorific titles from the Sultan.
“There are about ten variations of styles for the tengkolok in Perak; four of them most favoured by royalty. The Sultan of Perak has his own exclusive design called ‘Ayam Patah Kepak’ or loosely translated as ‘rooster with broken wings’. This headdress is white with silver embroidery, reflecting the wearer’s important role in society. As you can tell, the headdress is part of the royal ensemble,” explained Ku Kashah.
Besides Ayam Patah Kepak, other popular Perak royal styles are Pucuk Pisang Patah (broken banana shoots), Alang Iskandar (named after Raja Alang Iskandar) and Balung Ayam (rooster’s comb), each with specific folds and curves that depict its name.
Ku Kashah, who works as an executive at a private firm, is passionate about styling the tengkolok, so much so that he has perfected his skills. In addition to those for Perak royalty, he is also deft in royal styles of Kedah, Selangor and Pahang. The variation is slight, after all. On top of that, Ku Kashah has also created a number of his own tengkolok designs, displaying his innate creativity.
While 32in by 32in is the optimum size, as the longer the sides are the higher the tip of the tengkolok gets and would look unnatural, the smallest tengkolok Ku Kashah has styled was one just 19in by 19in, which was then placed in a glass casing, custom-made as a souvenir. As for the material, the most commonly used would be A-grade Indian songket, which he personally sources from Kuala Lumpur, unless the customer requests for more expensive fabric or supplies it himself.
The tengkolok is part of a three-piece set that includes the sampin (waistcloth) and bengkung (belt), also made from the same cloth. This set, sold by Ku Kashah under his brand name Sentuhan Prestij, is priced at RM450 to RM500 inclusive of the fabric, is usually bought to be worn with a traditional Malay outfit for ceremonial functions. Sometimes, he is engaged for his ‘wearing’ service, for an additional fee.
“Grooms in Malay weddings, as ‘king for a day’, also wear the tengkolok, albeit of a different style; usually simpler variations of Dendam Tak Sudah (unrelenting revenge). It originated from Negeri Sembilan and is the design worn exclusively by HRH King of Malaysia. The latest trend for grooms, though, is Balung Raja (royal rooster’s comb). I rarely cater for weddings unless requested by relatives,” he laughed at the obligation.
With the tengkolok not as commonly worn as in the past, Ku Kashah is taking it upon himself to keep this Malay heritage alive. He shared, “I’m making sure that I pass down my skills to my son. Beyond this, I want to educate as many people as possible, especially primary school pupils, about the tengkolok. It is so important to preserve it according to the various categories: royalty, palace nobleman, and commoner. We should be equipped with this knowledge to enable us to easily identify a person’s class in society with just one look at his tengkolok.”
Note: An edited version of this article [Keeping tengkolok tradition alive] was published on 15th July 2017 in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.